Several countries have managed to build massive arsenals despite being under various forms of international sanction.
China has anti-satellite weapons, advanced fighter jets, and ballistic missiles, despite the US banning all weapons-related trade with Beijing after the 1989 Tienanmen Square massacre.
The Arab League maintains an official boycott on Israel — which nevertheless has the strongest military in the Middle East. And EU and US sanctions haven’t wiped out Russia’s ongoing military modernization drive.
But China, Israel, Russia face far fewer barriers to the international weapons market than the true rogue states: That is, the US-listed state sponsors of terrorism.
And that’s is ironically a source of strength for these countries: They also trade one another, as the above map, compiled with information from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s global weapons transfer database for 2014 demonstrates.
There are currently 4 of them (although Cuba is set to be de-listed after last year’s diplomatic thaw), and a few are notable military powers in their own right.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps is fighting in Iraq and Syria. Syria’s Assad regime has held out against secular rebels and a range of jihadist groups for over 4 years. Sudan’s regime has survived through simultaneous civil wars and a deep economic trough.
North Korea, which was removed from the list in 2008 in an eventually-failed bid to jumpstart flagging disarmament talks, is under a heavy sanctions regime and has 1.2 million soldiers, thousands of artillery pieces, and nuclear weapons.
These countries managed to build up their military capabilities partly because of their international isolation.
For instance, 30 years of western sanctions required Iran to develop the one of the most extensive domestic arms industries in the Middle East — if it could buy weapons from the US or Europe, Iran wouldn’t have had to build its own battleships and submarines. North Korea has a substantial indigenous weapons capability as well ranging from ballistic missiles to small arms.
Iran provides all sorts of weaponry and military aid to Syria. Although it isn’t marked on this map, which only shows weapons transfers from 2014, Iran helped set up Sudan’s domestic arms industry and has provided arms to the government in Khartoum that later ended up with pro-government militant groups. Russia and China will sell to just about whoever they want to. Belarus, which has long been under various sanctions because of its government’s human rights record, will also sell to Sudan.
The map above shows one of the consequences of international sanctions and mechanisms like the state sponsors of terror list. They’re meant to change regimes’ behaviour by cutting them off from mainstream trade and international relations. But this actually creates an incentive for them to cooperate with one another in a way that may be even less accountable to responsible international actors.
Because these governments are already sanctioned, “rogue” regimes may come to believe that they have little to lose from further provocative behaviour.
North Korea is under about the strictest sanctions regime there is, so they figure there’s little additional cost in shipping arms to the Palestinian Popular Resistance Committees. Some regimes actually benefit from their isolation and would rather receive unconditional support from other weak and isolated states than western assistance conditioned on meaningful reform.
The map also provides a useful reminder that no country is entirely cut off from the rest of the world, and that even regimes far outside the international mainstream aren’t totally friendless.